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Cincinnati sees jump in PACT Act screenings and plans community visits

Congress Burn Pits
Posted at 7:09 PM, Apr 24, 2023

CINCINNATI — With the nation's largest upgrade to the veteran health care system thanks to the passage of the PACT Act, the challenge now is getting information out to both veterans who've never applied for benefits as well as those who've applied and been denied in the past.

Millions of veterans living with cancers or illnesses incurred as a result of their service now have an open door — even if they were previously denied health care coverage for those issues in the past.

“We really want to talk to people about what toxic exposure have you been involved in and if you've been in war you've been in toxic exposures,” said Ellen Graf, acting chief of Patient Business Services at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center.

The mindset shift is due to the PACT Act which is now the law of the land. It adds presumptive conditions for a wide range of issues from burn pits to Agent Orange contamination. In addition, it covers military and family members stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina who may have lingering health issues tied to a tainted water supply.

“I think it's a new conversation we're having here now,” Graf said. “It's no longer, 'You're not eligible.' It's now ,'Let's see what you're eligible for, let's see where you were, when you were there, what presumptive conditions are now being covered.'”

Marine Corps veteran Mike Farmer was stationed at Camp Lejeune and is impacted by the water quality issues covered under the PACT Act.

He is also the executive director of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission trying to get veterans previously denied coverage back into his office to file new claims.

“So many people who have always been told no, the answer is now, 'Yes how can we help you?'” Farmer said.

It’s not just about receiving health benefits to help with the illnesses associated with toxic exposure. The compensation portion of the PACT Act can also change things for Vietnam-era veterans with a new hypertension presumptive condition added to the list.

“It's typically at 0% for hypertension, however, that's a huge win because what we in the VSO office use that for hypertension causes all kinds of other medical conditions. Heart, kidneys so we can use that to claim secondary conditions based off that single hypertension,” Farmer said.

He said a lot of the new exams for the new claims can be done with an ACE review wherein your medical records would confirm a diagnosis of one of the presumptive conditions.

“If you’ve been denied you can file again, it’s no longer an appeal directly to the board,” he said. “You do a supplemental claim we’re seeing those on average taking six to nine months to completion.”

He said the new rule changes aren’t just about veterans currently living either.

“The VA is going one step further. They’re also reaching out to significant others or spouses because the veteran may have passed, the widow or widower doesn’t even know they’re eligible or things have changed because they no longer check in to veteran benefits,” Farmer said.

He says the Veterans Benefits Administration has seen a 25% increase in service-connected disability applications since the PACT Act went into law.

"The most common conditions to date are for rhinitis, hypertension and sinusitis," Farmer said.

From Oct. 1, 2022 to April 1, 2023, the VA reports 62,885 new enrollees and a total of 193, 897 veterans and/or survivors with completed PACT Act-related claims.

Screenings locally are picking up pace as well, according to Cincinnati VA Medical Center's Todd Sledge.

"Cincinnati VA has screened 18,000 veterans since the PACT ACT Toxic Exposure screenings went into effect November 2022," he said.

In an effort to serve more veterans and get claim information out to the community the Cincinnati VA Medical Center will launch their Mobile Unit Operations. Service Officers will be available for veterans and their surviving spouses to ask questions and to file claims.

Cincinnati VA Community Clinic Locations:

  • Clermont — May 2 and 3
  • Hamilton — May 9 and 10
  • Florence — May 16 and 17

All events will take place from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can find location information HERE.

Those living in Indiana or Kentucky can find the nearest Veteran Service Office here. Those living in Ohio can find theirs here.

If you have a veteran story to tell in your community, email homefront@wcpo.com. You also can join the Homefront Facebook group, follow Craig McKee on Facebook and find more Homefront stories here.